Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Narrating Intersections of Gender and Dwarfism in Everyday Spaces

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Narrating Intersections of Gender and Dwarfism in Everyday Spaces

Article excerpt


Feminist researchers have focused attention upon the discursive identities of women in a variety of contexts (Rose 1993, 1999; Valentine 1993; Pratt and Hanson 1994; Moss and Dyck 1996; Longhurst 1997; Blunt and Wills 2000). An important feature of this discussion is the idea that women cannot be essentialised. Feminist theory reminds us that to speak of 'Woman' or 'Man' in homogeneous terms does not, ultimately, make much sense. Rather, male and female identities and experiences, as Laws (1997) notes, are constructed by the intersection of identities of gender, race, age, class, sexual orientation and able-bodiedness. As Jones, Nast and Roberts (1997, xxviii) note, "In responding to the complex matrix of social relations within which women's experiences are structured, feminists have been led to examine an ever increasing proliferation of identity positions within the category 'woman'".

More recently, researchers have examined the intersection of gender and disability identities (Morris 1993; Gilbert 1997). There is an increasing amount of research that describes the socio-spatial experiences of particular women with particular 'disabilities.' (Wendell 1996; Chouinard 1999). As with earlier feminist studies that warned of essentialising 'women', recent studies have warned against the tendency to generalise the experiences of 'disabled-women'. As Wendell (1996, 61) reminds us, 'the term "People with Disabilities" masks all differences but disability. "Disabled women" does not mask gender differences, but does mask differences of race, class, sexual identity, age and difference of disabilities, among others'.

This paper examines the intersections of identities of 'woman' and 'dwarf. The dialectical relationship between structural and discursive definitions of both identities have material implications. Such implications include eligibility for social welfare, employment opportunities and the physical accessibility of goods and services. Moreover, space plays a fundamental role in creating and sustaining notions of disability and gender. As Dear et al. (1997, 474) observe, 'Not only is physical space employed as a representation of the social distance placed between able and disabled, but in dialectical fashion it acts to reaffirm and reify the boundaries between them'.

Unlike other biomedical conditions, dwarfism has only relatively recently been considered a disability. Other historical representations (such as dwarfs as performers or freaks) continue to affect the identity of dwarfism as a disability. Moreover, dwarfism often involves more bodily difference than physical limitation. For example, cultural norms, as expressed socially and materially in public spaces, can cause the lived experiences of able-bodied 'dwarfs' to be ones of disability. 'The power of culture alone to construct a disability', notes Wendell (1996, 44) 'is revealed when we consider bodily differences--deviations from a society's conception of a "normal" or acceptable body-that, although they cause little or no functional or physical difficulty for the person who has them, constitute major social disabilities'. In addition, dwarfism confuses norms regarding adult maturity, capability, physical attractiveness and gender.

By focusing on the experiences of four women, all achondroplastic dwarfs, this paper addresses the particularity of their socio-spatial experiences as 'dwarf-women'. Through a series of in-depth interviews, the narratives reveal a complex matrix of identities that are played out in their everyday lives. Furthermore, 'dwarfs' as discursively produced embodiments reveal and affect the characteristics of particular spaces, reinforcing the idea that bodies cannot be understood outside of places (Longhurst 1997). In this paper, I approach the identities of 'dwarf and 'woman' in post-structural terms, acknowledging that there is no essential definition of either term and that each involves relations of power and knowledge (Foucault 1973). …

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